by Michael O'Malley for

September 16, 2010

BEACHWOOD, Ohio — About 350 people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths gathered at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Tuesday in a call to battle the social ills of Cleveland and its suburbs.

Rabbi Richard Block of Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood said that during his 10 years here he has never seen such a large organizing effort by an interfaith group.

"I'll call this promising," he said. "This is a diverse, powerful group of congregations..."

The gathering, which included more than 20 clergy members, represented 30 congregations. The event was the first of a number of meetings scheduled at various churches and synagogues throughout Cuyahoga County.

"This is special," the Rev. Jawanza Colvin of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland told the gathering of white, black and brown faces, some wearing yarmulkes, some in Muslim head scarves. "You look beautiful, so give yourself a hand."

In an interview, Colvin said the group's mission is to get Cleveland's religious sector more involved in civic issues.

"There has always been a public role for religion in American life, particularly as it relates to social freedoms and social justice," he said. "Our goal is to improve quality of life, particularly for the disenfranchised and marginalized whose voices are left out of the public discourse."

The work will include grassroots organizing, holding public officials accountable and partnering with public and private sectors to address issues of education, health care and the economy.

Interfaith organizing often focuses on how to ease tensions between people of different creeds, but Tuesday's gathering had obviously moved beyond that issue and, instead, talked about how the group as one could use its spiritual muscle to organize the community around social justice issues.

"Through collective power we can make an impact," said Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Fairmount Temple. "We have to find a way to get to the root problems of our social ills."

In an interview Wednesday, the Rev. Tracey Lind of the Episcopal Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland said she senses "a new day" with "a new spirit" at work.

"We're going to turn things around together," she said. "This is about making the voices of people of goodwill heard. We have the capacity and willingness to do this right now, making sure people have jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods."

The group is getting professional organizing help from the national Industrial Areas Foundation, founded in 1940 by the late Saul Alinsky, a liberal social activist who organized poor people in cities across the country.

The foundation has 56 interfaith organizations in 22 states and Washington, D.C.

The next meeting scheduled for the Cleveland interfaith group is at 7 p.m., Oct. 7, at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, 8712 Quincy Ave., Cleveland.

"We'll be holding workshops over the next few weeks," said Colvin. "In 2011, we want to be able to take advantage of the passion we had in that room Tuesday night."

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